by   David Hancock

Breeding the Working Dog – Respecting Function

 In his excellent Sheepdogs At Work of 1979, Tony Iley, opened his text with:
“One of the wonders of the world is to see a good Border Collie working in harmony with his master. Science and art are so closely combined as to make them inseparable. Each purposeful movement of the dog stems from instinctive knowledge and skilful training. The control of the sheep by the dog and the close knit partnership between dog and man cannot fail to move even the casual observer. The enthusiast, however, will not be content merely to observe. He will want to probe deeper into the phenomenon of the working dog.”  Many pastoral breed dog owners have a desire to know much more about the origin and motivation of their dogs; some may just want a ‘pedigree dog’, but a dog only good on paper is less of a companion and its health, both physical and genetic, may not be robust. The public are slowly coming to realise that having a pedigree does not automatically bestow quality. A realisation of that fact and the knowledge that a dog exercising its breed’s function is a far more contented pet can lead to enhanced pet-ownership.

Breeding a Sounder Dog – The Limitations of Pedigree  

 In Canada it’s a federal offence to sell an unregistered purebred dog. Every purebred dog if it is to be legally sold there has to be registered with the Canadian Kennel Club. In Britain anyone can sell a dog as a ‘pedigree’ animal; it doesn’t need to be registered with anyone. In the United States, several of their states have enacted what are called “Lemon Laws for Pets” which are designed to protect the purchaser of a dog but they are not there to protect the dog. Such laws give the purchaser the right to return a sick or dead puppy for a refund or replacement, with some going even further and allowing the purchaser to retain the puppy, have it treated and get some form of reimbursement from the purchaser for veterinary expenses. For the pedigree dog to flourish it’s important for both the dog and the purchasing public to be protected.

There is a misunderstanding amongst the general public over the use of the word 'pedigree' when used to describe a dog's breeding. Strictly speaking it means having a recorded line of descent, especially one showing pure breeding. But the possession of a pedigree (a piece of paper) has come to mean, for many people, a sign of excellence, a denotation of quality. This is undeserved and the public is being misled. First of all, the pedigree form or registration certificate, that comes from the dog being registered with the KC, is, when it is correct, just a birth certificate. I write, when it is correct, because its compilation relies on just one factor: the honesty of the breeder.

In the middle of the last century, a Danish geneticist, Winge, found on examining the Danish stud-book that 15% of the pedigrees he checked could not be correct, on coat-colour inheritance grounds alone. The American Kennel Club has introduced random DNA-testing, after being shocked to discover the level of falsified pedigrees on their register. I know of cases in more than one breed here where the breeder providing a particular stud dog, on request, has not used this dog, but a kennel-mate, to service the bitch. And the subsequent pedigree has shown that the requested stud dog performed the service not the real sire. The pedigree or record of breeding was knowingly and intentionally falsified. It is not wise to rely entirely on breeder honesty.

Genetic Health

Secondly, there is nothing on the pedigree form but a list of ancestors, no indication of genetic health, no record of the quality of the ancestors listed and no legally-binding declaration stating that, in the event of the facts provided being shown to be inaccurate, the breeder signing the form is actionable in a civil court and accountable to the KC over any future stock registrations. In 1910, it was understandable for the pedigree form to be merely a certified record of breeding. But in 2010, surely we have progressed in our information technology? Yet, the pedigree form still only contains lists of ancestors. We know however that certain dogs in certain breeds are carriers of inheritable conditions. Disreputable breeders conceal this, but how is the general public seeking a pure bred pup to discover such a risk?

In a letter to the weekly publication Dog World of 12th July 2013, Alan Wood made a number of points for me, in stating that few people he had met could discuss the meaning and implications of a breeding programme based on the pedigrees of the prospective parents. Being involved in horse breeding, he had found the data of the Thoroughbred (horse) to be far more comprehensive and available than that for pedigree dogs. Having observed how the horse-breeding world works he felt that the whole subject of the KC’s position in the world of dogs needs a serious review, considering that the ‘laissez faire’ attitude of the Assured Breeder Scheme is just not strong enough and will never achieve the improvement in dog health and type required to separate the elite breeder from the puppy farmer. He has made a case; why can anyone, however ill-advised or misguided, be allowed to breed a litter of pedigree pups and automatically have them registered as purebred just by paying a sum to the KC? The desire for quality in a future litter shouldn’t just rest with a breeder; a system for better assuring excellence is essential. You could make a case for every breeder of purebred dogs to need a licence from the KC before a litter is created.  

Recognizing Merit

Overseas, show dogs are routinely graded in order of merit, from 'excellent' downwards and their grading can be easily seen on a fuller registration certificate. Why not here? There are some seriously flawed dogs being exhibited and the after-show critiques reveal their seriousness. Here are some of the words used by judges in such critiques in the last few years: Estrela Mountain Dogs- 'I was horrified when I looked in the mouths of many of the dogs present. Old English Sheepdogs- 'the quality in the males is still poor.' Bernese Mountain Dogs- 'sadly lacking in overall soundness and carrying too much weight.' Rough Collies - 'I was very sad to have so much bad movement.' These are comments on dogs being proudly exhibited by owners, some of them breeders, at championship shows, not village fete dog shows.  All of these faulty dogs in the ring had what is so often conceived as a distinction - a pedigree. One exhibitor at such a show once described his latest litter to me as 'only pet-market quality'! If the comments of judges set out above are on the 'show-quality' dogs, God help future pet owners. Even sadder, at the same show, was being told that one of the dogs in the ring had a litter-mate with Wobbler Syndrome, but that the line was still being bred from. This means that a future dog from this line could have hind legs that collapse. Should not vets, breed clubs, welfare organisations and the KC not be striving to get such concealment exposed? Until genetic pedigrees are issued, the public is not just being misled, but being cheated. Our KC is now working closer with the veterinary profession than ever before and that has to be good for the breeding of sounder pedigree dogs. Purchasers of a registered pedigree pup really do need to know if their dog is sound – not just to obtain value for money but to obtain a truly healthy pet. Breeders need data!       

The KC does deserve praise for facing up to some of the problems of health and breeding in the dogs registered with them. They have established the Dog Health Group, aiming to tackle all health issues affecting dogs, with particular emphasis understandably on those that may affect pedigree dogs. This group has three separate sub-groups that address: Genetics and Health Screening, Breed Standards and Conformation and the Assured Breeder Scheme. Also involved in this work are co-opted geneticists, vets and behaviourists. The launch of the Mate Select scheme for use by breeders to access co-efficients for inbreeding in hypothetical matings between two dogs on the breed registers is a major step forward. Over 750,000 searches a year are now being experienced. The health data on prospective breeding stock is of particular value.   

Gene Pool for Good or Just a Container of the Past     

Inbreeding has attracted a great deal of attention recently, both in the human Asian community, concerned about cousin-to-cousin marriages, and in pedigree dog circles. In the latter however it’s not exactly a fresh topic. In his valuable book of 1905, The Kennel Handbook, the knowledgeable CJ Davies wrote: “We will turn to a matter which is indirectly touched upon in Mendel’s principles of heredity, that of the value of inbreeding. Perhaps no point in breeding is more subject to controversy than this one. From one breeder we may receive an alarming list of evils which will result from inbreeding; from the next we may receive nothing but praise of its virtues. Certainly the appearance and behaviour of some of our notoriously inbred animals is not a very favourable advertisement of its beneficiality; on the other hand we know that certain plants habitually fertilise themselves for apparently any number of generations, and not closer form of breeding can be imagined. Loss of size, sterility, loss of constitutional vigour, and, predisposition to disease are among the evils laid at its door. What we have to consider is, Are these caused by inbreeding? We should be inclined to answer: Indirectly, Yes; Directly, No.” He could have been writing yesterday; scientists and dog-breeders might answer quite differently.

In the last year or so in Britain a number of extremely important inquiries have been conducted into dog-breeding, and considering that very question one hundred years on. Each one has expressed concerns about breeding to close relatives in pedigree breeds. The Bateson report recommended the establishment of an Advisory Council (now set up under Professor Sheila Crispin) to address the issue. The cross-party Parliamentary Group’s findings also recommended greater scrutiny of dog breeding practices of such a nature. But for a century or so, close breeding to certain lines or sires has been accepted practice amongst pedigree dog breeders. In her informative book Advanced Labrador Breeding, of 1988, Mary Roslin Williams, herself a successful breeder of both show and FT champions, wrote: “to produce a strain of good ones, you must carry out a degree of line-breeding, possibly even using the dangerous practice of mild inbreeding in special cases. Top breeders hate the moment they have to use a complete outcross.”


 She defined line-breeding as “a gathering of lines leading back in three or four generations to a known good dog or bitch or very often to one or two good dogs and bitches, with the rest of the pedigree filled with outcross names.” The famous Golden Retriever breeder Mrs WM Charlesworth warned against brother-sister matings but liked bitch to grandfather unions and favoured bitch to nephew matings.  In the lurcher and terrier world, close matings can of course occur too. But when dogs are rated by their performance rather than their type or handsomeness, there are built-in safeguards. ‘Master-race’ thinking has long been discredited in the human race!

Inbreeding is coming under greater scientific scrutiny as inheritable defects in pedigree dogs increase. One researcher in America found that in dog breeds there is a decline in the average life span of around 7% for every 10% increase in inbreeding. Dwarfism has been found in Pointer litters at inbreeding coefficients of 13 to 37%, whereas unaffected litters rated 0 to 24%. In a Foxhound pack, the conception rate with sperm of inbred dogs was 73% against 87% with outbred ones; average litter size was 7 against 9 and 4 against 6 at weaning. The sperm count was 70 against 367.

Swedish research shows that their pedigree dogs in 60 breeds had an average inbreeding coefficient of 14%. Most dog breeds with good-sized populations have a coefficient of inbreeding of 4-5%. Professional breeders of production animals such as cows, pigs, goats, sheep and horses consider that a coefficient of inbreeding of around 9% is risky. Why do breeders of production animals seek healthier animals than dog-breeders? Is it not mainly based on market value related to beef and milk production? Show dogs have no performance rating, just breeder-whim appearance.

Uninformed outcrossing is not the answer; there has to be research as well as vision. Leading geneticist Professor Steve Jones has stated that for pedigree breeds of dog 'a universe of suffering' is ahead with continued inbreeding. Fellow geneticist Bruce Cattanach has written: '...inbreeding has been ingrained in dog breeder psyche from the beginning and is hard to break, even when it is possible to show that it is not the most successful way to breed'. He went on to state that some pedigree breeds may well become extinct in our lifetimes without intervention, advising outcrossing to other related breeds. But who will listen to him; dogma will prevail and not just lurchermen will wonder at such folly - and such damage to long-established breeds. One of the weaknesses of the otherwise quite excellent Bateson Report into the state of pedigree dog-breeding in Britain was that it didn’t gather any valuable evidence on the genetic size of each registered breed. This report uses the expression ‘closely related breeding pair’ when discussing the mating of dams with sires, but doesn’t define what closely related actually means.

Penalties of Close Breeding

 Inbreeding Depression is an acknowledged cause of small litter sizes, shorter lives and a reduced immune system in pedigree dogs, as Davies was noting a century ago. Dr Ian Ramsey of the University of Glasgow has stated: “Inbreeding leads to certain genes being concentrated in particular breeds, or even lines within breeds, and a lack of variation follows…However, dogs’ genes also determine how well their immune systems are at recognising their own bodies. If the ‘bad’ genes that stop a dog’s immune system recognising its own body are, accidentally, concentrated along with the ‘good’ genes for a certain coat colour, physical size, etc., then the dog will have an inherited tendency to suffer from autoimmune disease. This dog may well pass this tendency on to its puppies.” He went on to point out the only way of avoiding this is to avoid inbreeding as much as possible – accepting that as you do so a greater variation in other things will be introduced.  Breeders can choose, their dogs cannot. The admirable organisation that oversees the breeding and registering of Border Collies that work – the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS) has a database of over 355,000 dogs registered with them. Two sires, Wiston Cap and Wilson’s Cap are immensely influential; Wiston Cap sired nearly 2,000 pups in 388 litters. It requires a knowledgeable breeder to make the best of such genes without such breeding being too close. The selection of breeding stock must never be done merely on appearance.

Breeding Concerns

 Inbreeding amongst purebred dogs is very much in the limelight in the early part of the 21st century and rightly so. Pastoral and working breeds originating in a small genetic base need monitoring. The inbreeding coefficients (a low one is better, the higher the percentage, the closer the breeding) in pedigree breeds have been identified and published. The KC’s Mate Select system allows checks to be made on the genetic desirability of a proposed mating, merit apart. The coefficients of inbreeding (COIs) assessed for pastoral breeds in 2010 gave some revealing (and some reassuring) figures: Anatolian Shepherd Dog 6.6%; Australian Shepherd Dog and Cattle Dog 2.4%; Bearded Collie 14.6%; Beauceron 1.4%; Belgian Shepherd Dogs 2.5% (Groenendael), 7.5% (Laekenois), 2.2% (Malinois), 4.3% (Tervueren); Bernese Mountain Dog 5.1%; Border Collie 14.6%; Bouvier Des Flandres 8.1%; Briard 3.3%; Collie (Rough) 13.7%; Collie (Smooth) 5.8%; Entelbucher 0.1%; Estrela Mountain Dog 1.5%; Finnish Lapphund 1.3%; GSD 3.2%; Greater Swiss Mountain Dog 0.5%; Hovawart 0.5%; Hungarian Puli 7.5%; Komondor 0.2%; Lancashire Heeler 11.6%; Leonberger 4.1%; Maremma Sheepdog 1.2%; Norwegian Buhund 9%; Old English Sheepdog 9.5%; Polish Lowland Sheepdog 7.2%; Pyrenean Mastiff 0.8%; Pyrenean Mountain Dog 8.9%; Pyrenean Sheepdog 1.8%; Shetland Sheepdog 5.8%; Swedish Vallhund 3.7%; Welsh Corgi (Cardigan) 5.2% and (Pembroke) 8%.   

These are breed averages and it would be wrong to apply these ratings to an individual in a breed; the KC web site can make more precise measurements, based on pedigree names. It’s worth noting that the breeds with the bigger numbers aren’t always the ones with the lowest percentage. In 2012, the new puppy contract launched by the British Veterinary Association’s Animal Welfare Foundation, supported by the RSPCA and endorsed by the Advisory Council for the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding, advised that puppies with an inbreeding coefficient of more than 12.5% should be avoided. David Balding, Professor of Statistical Genetics at Imperial College, London, has advised: “Inbreeding is not the only cause of canine health problems, and perhaps not even the worst, but it is the easiest problem to fix…Find out the coefficient of inbreeding for a puppy before buying it…at least make sure that the puppy has four different grandparents, not one of them directly related to another.”

Relative Values

 To put these figures into context, all dogs in a breed are related, a mother-son mating would produce a 25% COI, first cousins will have a 6.25% COI, and within breeds variations can be found: Standard Poodles have varied from 6.25% to over 25%, with the former living four years longer than the latter. If you bred with two totally unrelated Border Collies, then mated two of their offspring together, their pups’ COI could theoretically be 25% if they share the same grandparents. For many breeds, not just gundog ones, the average COI may be above 10%, as common ancestors contribute. Of course a COI of 1% doesn’t guarantee better health than a measurement of 30%. Some low-scoring breeds have serious genetic defects as bad genes manifest themselves. The chances of inheriting a double dose of defective genes needs to be reduced. Without health checks the overuse of a defective sire can create long- term misery in any breed. Rushing to mate your bitch to the latest Crufts winner is not a rational act, nor always a compassionate one. It is important to note however that COIs are not all calculated from a common base; it would be more valuable, comparatively, if all were to be based on a 5-generation survey.  There would be greater clarity too if the advice to avoid breeding from stock with a COI of lower than 12.5 were altered to read not more than 12.5%. The genetic health of pedigree pastoral dogs rests with breeders but others contribute hugely too.

Inbreeding Ratios

  Inbreeding is coming under greater scientific scrutiny as inheritable defects in pedigree dogs increase. One researcher in America found that in dog breeds there is a decline in the average life span of around 7% for every 10% increase in inbreeding. Dwarfism has been found in Pointer litters at inbreeding coefficients of 13 to 37%, whereas unaffected litters rated 0 to 24%. In a Foxhound pack, the conception rate with sperm of inbred dogs was 73% against 87% with out-bred ones; average litter size was 7 against 9 and 4 against 6 at weaning. The sperm count was 70 against 367.

Swedish research shows that their pedigree dogs in 60 breeds had an average inbreeding coefficient of 14%. Most dog breeds with good-sized populations have a coefficient of inbreeding of 4-5%. Professional breeders of production animals such as cows, pigs, goats, sheep and horses consider that a coefficient of inbreeding of around 9% is risky. Why do breeders of production animals seek healthier animals than dog-breeders? Is it not mainly based on market value related to beef and milk production? Show dogs have no performance rating, just breeder-whim appearance. The Germans have a word for reckless breeding leading to discomfort, disease and a shorter life for the pedigree dog. It is 'qualzucht', cruelty breeding, or more literally, 'torture breeding'. When a geneticist, himself in Boxers, finds it necessary to pose the question: Are there any Boxers that are truly free of heart murmurs? We have much to think about. He himself was brave to outcross for the naturally docked tail - and why not? Uninformed out-crossing is not the answer; there has to be research as well as vision. He, with two other geneticists, opposed the recognition of two breeds from Anatolia, during the Kangal Dog/Anatolian Shepherd Dog debate, on the grounds that smaller gene pools resulting from split breeds can degrade genetic diversity. I can see why, but genetic diversity doesn’t just depend on breed population, more on the selection of breeding stock. I don’t recall these geneticists arguing for the Rough and Smooth Collie breeds to merge in order to widen their respective gene pools.

It’s worrying to note that in 1982, when 5,663 Rough Collies were newly registered with the KC, a breeding research project found that over 80% of these dogs could be traced back to one dog called Old Cockie, who was a frequent winner around 1870.  Later, in 1989, when 1,945 Bearded Collies were newly registered with the KC, a similar research project found that they all came from just 12 dogs. Every British Smooth Collie descends, within five generations, from a single dog. This is fine when inheritable defects are not present, or litter sizes are not reduced and when breed virility is not causing alarm. Inbreeding will not cause inherited problems if the problems are not present, in the genes, in the first place. The genetic size of a breed is crucially important; some ancient breeds are inbred and some relatively newly-created breeds are not. But breeding practices decide whether a breed founded a century ago is inbred or genetically diverse.

Need for Patience

Writing in Dogs in Canada magazine in 1988, Dr RD Crawford, a professor in animal genetics at the College of Agriculture of the University of Saskatchewan, gave this advice: “A useful rule of thumb might be the following. If your breed is a very ancient one, that has undergone very high levels of inbreeding, and that has had very intensive selection for its breed characteristics, then it should be possible to inbreed very heavily to make rapid progress in establishing a unique and distinctive line or strain. But if your breed is a relatively new one, which has not thus far been inbred and which exhibits a lot of variation, then development of lines and strains within the breed using inbreeding can only be done very slowly; it will take many generations to make much progress. If your breed lies somewhere between these extremes, it should be safe to proceed with moderate inbreeding to develop your own line or strain. Regardless of the category of your breed, you should be emotionally prepared for genetic ‘junk’ to be uncovered and you should be prepared to eliminate it as part of your long-term breeding program.” But how many breeders of pedigree dogs have the patience for the ‘long haul’ or the resolve to eliminate genetic ‘junk’?

Much can depend for example on the over-use in purebred dogs of prize-winning sires. One working champion Springer at the end of the last century sired over 210 litters without undergoing genetic health checks. In 2010 a magnificent Hungarian Vizsla won best in show at Crufts; he had been a highly successful prize-winner since arriving here in 2005. During his first four years in this country, he produced 827 offspring, 517 being first generation from him. In that period just under 5,000 Vizslas were newly registered, which means that he sired more than 10% of the newly registered Hungarian Vizslas in Britain. The over-use of a top dog can end up contributing to a narrow genetic pool, which, without mandatory health clearances, can lead to an increased potential for inherited disease. It is good to learn that the Border Collie show breeders here have imported dogs of known quality from Australia and the USA, as well as importing frozen semen from Australia, in the search for a wider gene pool and a better dog.

 “Not a few breeders who ought to know better have spoilt any breeding plans they may have made…by chasing after the latest champion dog as a mate for their bitches. If he really is the dog for them they should have been able to recognize this fact sooner; if he is not, the conferment of the title does not make him a better dog than he was before. Some people never seem able to make up their minds for themselves…”
From The Welsh Corgi by Charles Lister-Kaye, Popular Dogs, 1968.